England in Australia: anatomy of a shellack. The reviews are in. The play-by-play reports have been submitted by those closest to this gruff and lifeless Ashes tour. Two things stand out.
First, the startling mediocrity of so much of the grassroots management. There’s no doubt, if only to keep the deck chairs looking nice as the ship’s bow slides into the North Atlantic, heads should roll, if only to keep up appearances.
The second point is the degree of guilt and deception surrounding England’s defeat, a quality which in itself seems very instructive. To date, the list of apologies offered by players, management and affiliates has included: the umpires, the rain, the heat, the ball, the fields, inexperience, bad luck, Darren Stevens, injury, fatigue, boozing, skin folds, not enough time for the family, too much time for the family, the need to play golf, too much golf, the bowling is too fast, the bowling is too accurate, the bowling is too resilient, each other and, best of all, a culture of Apologies.
Plus of course Darren Stevens, and Darren Stevens again. It’s a quirk of England cricket’s fear-ridden conversation with himself that Stevens’ name was mentioned so often during the first three Tests that he issued a statement asking people to stop him.
For good reason too. Here’s something funny: Australian test players in county cricket have a WhatsApp group where they talk about the difficulties of playing here. It’s called “Stevosgoingtogetyou”. And he is. Last summer Stevens bowled twice to Marnus Labuschagne and once to Travis Head. He got them all three out, for 11, 11 and 20.
In reality, Stevens is one of the good things about county cricket – extremely skilled, extremely fit, famously encouraging to younger players, with 227 wickets out of 18 to his name between the ages of 40 and 45. To keep him afloat as an embodiment of a failed culture is crazy. He is the good, a reservoir of skill and knowledge, and the guarantor of a certain standard of local difficulty.
But then the idea that what’s happening in the county game is all bad, or meaningfully separated from every other part of English cricket, is clearly absurd. However, this seems to be the script.
Witness the recent comments from Tom Harrison, the perpetually slippery CEO of the ECB, who has presided over county cricket for the past seven years but who seemed shocked to discover in the wake of Ash’s defeat that there is so much work to be done here. is, so many problems that only he, Tom Harrison, can possibly solve.
More shocking was Joe Root’s comment that “everyone who gets on this test team right now is doing it in spite of county cricket, not because of county cricket.” Root’s broader point was more detailed and well-intentioned, although it will always be a little strange to hear the highest paid person in English cricket tell every coach, player, groundskeeper, development officer, paying supporter and junior hopeful that the thing they like is trash and it’s basically their fault that England just lost 10 to 56 in Hobart.
In Root’s defense, it’s a worn-out story. The places are bad and only reward people over 40 with bed blockers. This in turn is not preparation for Test Cricket where the pitches are good and the bowlers are fast (usually not true). And that’s why the England Test team can’t make 300.
Is this true? The idea that county cricket has always been an elite testing ground is definitely overrated. If young players were really crushed every week in the 1980s by a spinning attack from Sylvester Clarke and Clive Rice, why were England so bad at percussion?
Likewise, the idea that today’s circuit is populated solely by old pie-throwing decadents is an exaggeration. In his brief appearances for Yorkshire over the past three years, Root has taken on Michael Neser, Kyle Abbott, Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Fidel Edwards, Jake Ball, Jade Dernbach, Sam Curran, Peter Siddle, George Garton, Michael Hogan, Nathan Gilchrist and Miguel Cummins, as he played alongside South Africa’s current opening bowler Duanne Olivier. Does this really sound like the end of days?
The other obvious problem with Root’s statement is that more and more batters are coming out of county cricket, starting well at Test level and then steadily getting worse. Ollie Pope averaged 47 after seven Tests against quality bowling, then fell through the floor as a centrally contracted England player. Is that somehow county cricket’s fault?
The same goes for Dom Sibley, who scored an average of 47 in nine games in his first full year of testing and then fell apart in front of England’s elite coaches. Ditto Rory Burns, who has deteriorated as an England player, and also Zak Crawley, who made a double hundred straight from county cricket and then fell to pieces when England got him into the system.
There is one aspect that is elaborated here. It is common to have an early form peak. Opposition bowlers find your weakness. You come out of a plateau, then work and keep going. Why didn’t that happen? Why can’t England foresee this development? This is certainly the role of the elite pathway director, the elite batting coach, the head coach, the general manager. It has absolutely nothing to do with Darren Stevens.
There are two points worth adding. Root’s complaints about not exactly recreating the conditions of Test cricket in advance are the words of an athlete coddled by a system from childhood, who finds it a mistake not to get the perfect preparation.
How many successful people in the history of sport have gotten this? How many times had Shiv Thakor, Mohammed Siraj, Rishabh Pant and KL Rahul played red ball cricket in England last year? How hard and how desperate have the English batters begged the English fast bowlers to prepare them for Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins? That gap is there to bridge. That’s the test. It can be done.
This is not to say that county cricket is a healthy place. But it’s not a separate, culpable entity, some poisonous underworld ruled by the goblin king Darren Stevens. It is rather a piece with everything else in English cricket, subject to the same scarce resources, invisibility, narrow demographic and careless management. Instead of blaming it really needs a little care.